How to Build Indestructible Shoulders With the Face Pull

This upper back classic is your key to strong shoulders.

Face pulls are an exercise that may get little recognition, yet develops valuable shoulder and scapular stability for heavy pressing movements and can enable you to train harder every single day. 

They are a great movement to add to any pressing or overhead performance day, such as before heavy bench press sessions, in warm-up areas before weightlifting meets, or even in the bullpen after pitching a no-hitter. 

In this article, we will discuss the face pull and how it can improve both strength and shoulder health at the same time.

How to Do the Face Pull

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the face pull. This guide will discuss how to perform the face pull with a resistance band, however, you can perform the movement with a variety of implements.

Step 1 — Set Your Band 

band looped on squat rack

Start by wrapping the band around a pillar or squat rack at face level, or slightly above or below if you are looking to diversify the angle. The farther you stand away from the anchor, the harder the movement will be.

Coach’s Tip: Make sure there is tension on the band when you have your hands fully extended in front of you.

Step 2 — Take Your Grip

Grasp the resistance band with an overhand grip, making sure that your hands are 6 – 12 inches apart. You can also grasp the band with a more neutral grip, so that your thumbs are upwards and palms facing one another.

Coach’s Tip: By varying your grip, you can find the one that feels best on your shoulder. If you feel some discomfort in the front of the shoulder as you do these, try taking a neutral grip (palms facing one another) to decrease the amount of internal rotation at the shoulder joint.

Step 3 — Pull and Rotate

Stand upright with a very slight forward lean in your torso and your arms outstretched in front of you. Pull the band back towards your face by first retracting your shoulders and then following with the elbows. Keep your upper arm parallel to the floor.

As you’re pulling, rotate your arm externally such that in the final position, the back of your hand is pointing behind you. The final position of the exercise should resemble a front-double-bicep flex, with the inside of your upper arm pointing forwards. 

Coach’s Tip: Make sure to pull the band to your face, rather than hunch your shoulder forwards or stick your chin out. 

Benefits of the Face Pull

Below are a few reasons why any strength, power, or functional fitness athlete can benefit from including face pulls into their routine.

Improve Shoulder Health

The face pull can be done as part of your preparation for heavy pressing, a shoulder or chest workout, or just as a form of general priming for the joint. By working on your shoulder mechanics, you can ensure your joints are able to handle whatever you throw at them in the gym. 

Increase Scapular Stability

A stable shoulder is critical if you want to perform heavy bench presses, push presses, jerks, or even compete in strongman. No matter your discipline or interest in the weight room, you need to have your shoulder stability dialed in.

The face pull allows you to work directly on improving this attribute so you can lift safely and effectively. 

Develop Upper Back Strength

Working on your scapular control will often result in greater shoulder and back health. Over time, the ability to train continually injury-free and recover from each session will result in more reps performed, more muscle mass created, and a snowball effect of positive performance. 

Muscles Worked by the Face Pull

The face pull is a movement that targets a specific set of muscles, most of which are smaller in size and perform specific functions related to shoulder mobility. Below is a list of some of the muscles targeted by the face pull.

Scapular Stabilizers

The scapular stabilizers — like the rhomboid, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and more — are the primary muscles used to control your shoulder during pressing, pulling, and overhead movements. The face pull is a great way to strengthen them and reinforce proper stability necessary for most upper body lifts.

Rear Delts

The rear deltoids are the main muscle used in the face pull, and can be trained directly with the face pull and its variation and alternatives. They play a key role in both retracting and rotating the shoulder as you pull the band towards your face. 

Who Should Do the Face Pull

Face pulls can benefit most lifters and gymgoers, as they help to strengthen the posterior shoulder muscles, improve posture, and add stability for overhead and pressing movements. 

Below is a list of who can benefit from face pulls, and why they’re worth doing on a regular basis.

Strength Athletes

Strength athletes can use the face pull to strengthen the shoulder muscles and help add to the stability necessary for heavy pressing and other overhead lifts. Movements like the bench press and split jerk stress the anterior muscles of the shoulder, while also demanding a lot of stability from the joint capsule itself, making the face pull a great accessory and preventative exercise.

Olympic Weightlifters

Olympic weightlifters require high amounts of shoulder stability necessary for the jerk and snatch. Adding face pulls into a training program either as an accessory exercise or as a warm-up movement can help reinforce shoulder stability, build a bit of muscle, and improve the posterior shoulder strength necessary for big lifts on the competition platform.

Regular Gymgoers

The face pull can be used for all of the same purposes for regular gym goers, in addition to helping improve posture. If you’re not a competitive athlete but still want to bulletproof your posture and keep your shoulders healthy for whatever life throws at you, the face pull belongs in your exercise program.

resistance bands with handles
Credit: zefirchik06 / Shutterstock

Face Pull Sets and Reps

If you’re looking to use the face pull in your workout program, odds are you want to increase the strength and size of your rear delts and enhance posterior shoulder stability needed for heavy pressing movements or athletic performance. 

To Build Stability

If you are looking to increase stability, which will often result due to getting stronger and performing repetitions with control, you should start by performing 2 – 4 sets for 10 – 15 reps. 

Your tempo should establish control during the eccentric phase, and minimize swinging of the body back or forwards.

To Gain Muscle

When looking to increase muscle growth, outside of the standard growth that comes with lifting in general, you’ll want to add some higher rep training to stimulate more muscle fibers outside of the standard 10 – 15 rep range. 

You can perform higher rep sets such as 15 – 25 reps for 2 – 4 total sets, with slower tempo, to fully stimulate the small muscles of the shoulder. 

Face Pull Variations

Below are two face pull variations you can integrate into your workout routine to add variety, increase strength and muscle hypertrophy of the rear deltoids, and better fit your needs based on your individual setup.

Cable Face Pull

Performing the face pull on a cable stand allows for a more consistent resistance curve, instead of the movement becoming much harder at the end and relatively easy at the beginning. It also lets you adjust the resistance as needed, making it useful if you only have access to a single resistance band

Bent-Over Dumbbell Face Pull

If you don’t have access to cables or a resistance band, you can do a face pull with dumbbells. By hinging at the hips and bending over so your torso is parallel to the ground, you can pull the dumbbells up towards your ears in the same manner. Note that you should probably use very light weights for this variation to stimulate the target muscles. 

Face Pull Alternatives

If the face pull just isn’t your jam, there are a couple of ways to get similar results. Here are a few workable substitutions for the face pull. 

Rear Flye

The rear delt flye involves many of the same muscle groups that are utilized in the face pull. The major distinction is that there will be less external rotation at the shoulder in a rear flye. However, you can still effectively stimulate the posterior deltoid by performing rear flyes either with dumbbells for added stability work or on a machine. 

Band Pull-Apart

The pull-apart is similar in technique and muscle activation to the face pull but with more of an emphasis placed on horizontal abduction. You can use pull-aparts to stimulate your rear delts as well as get some extra-credit work in for the traps and rhomboids. 

Final Word

Your upper back is the support structure for any and all pressing movements you perform in the gym. Healthy, stable, and strong shoulders are absolutely paramount for driving heavy weights off your chest or overhead.

The face pull is one of the most high-value exercises you can perform to ensure your upper back is conditioned to support high-intensity lifting. Few other movements offer the specific muscle action and movement pattern provided by the face pull, and the results will speak for themselves. 


The face pull is a great movement to build shoulder strength and stability. Some lifters or coaches may have some questions as to which type of face pull is best for their goals.

What are the differences between high and low face pulls?

Depending on the angle of the pull, you can place more emphasis on certain muscle groups. If you are pulling upwards in the face pull, from low to high, you will use more traps, whereas if you pull from a high to lower point, you will use more lats.

Should you do face pulls if they hurt your shoulder?

No, if you have pain or discomfort, stop. That said, try changing the position on your hands, take a different grip, or try one of the variations or alternatives discussed above. The shoulder is a highly articulate joint, and most people can find a range of motion that is comfortable for them.

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